In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about the meaning of kumbaya with definitions, origins, examples, synonyms, antonyms, and more.
If you’ve only ever read a word, you may not always know how to pronounce it. If you’ve only ever heard a word, you may not recognize it when you read it.
When you learn the definitions, pronunciations, and etymology of words that you either only ever hear or read you broaden your understanding and increase your vocabulary. You may even start to sprinkle the word into your speech and text.
Let’s learn more about the fun word (and song!) kumbaya!
What Is the Meaning of Kumbaya?
Kumbaya or “kum ba yah” is the title of an African American spiritual. Some might say that what it means to each person is subjective. Looking at the origin stories of the song and the meaning of each word may help you to gain further understanding of the word and what it means historically.
The song is often known by other titles such as:
- “Kum Ba Yah”
- “Come By Yuh”
- “Come By Here’
For most, the song is a prayerful plea for compassion. It is easy to imagine the song’s evocations of spiritual unity as sung by formerly enslaved people.
Others feel it is simply a corruption of the English phrase, “Come by here.” Whatever the opinion, it is a familiar song of linear notes.
What Is the Origin of the Word Kumbaya?
The history of the word kumbaya is disputed. According to the United States Library of Congress, there are several theories on the origin of this popular song. Music historians can’t seem to agree.
Through the Theories
According to some, each word in the song title “Kumbaya” is a Hebrew word.
- Kum or kəm – Meaning arise
- Bah or bī – Meaning come or is coming
- Yah or yä – The name of the Eternal God
If you consider that Israel is the primary Hebrew-speaking country and it is the crossroads between Africa, Europe, and Asia, it makes sense that the language would have been spread throughout the neighboring lands.
Given the history of the slave trade, it is entirely plausible that the song has an African origin before it became an African American spiritual.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Most commonly, the songwriter and clergyman Rev. Martin V. Frey is credited as the writer of “Kum Ba Yah.” He wrote the song when he was 17 while he was attending a Christian Crusade camp. It is his most popular song, but he also wrote other popular titles such as:
- “I’ve Got Peace Like a River”
- “Do, Lord”
- “He Is Lord”
- “This Is My Commandment”
Frey claimed that he wrote the song after being inspired by prayer he heard from a storefront evangelist in Portland, Oregon.
Later, the song would be a star in the folk revival of the 1950s, and dozens of artists have made recordings of the song giving it even broader popularity. Check out some of the singers and artists that have covered this historical song:
- The Folksmiths
- Pete Seeger
- Joan Baez
- The Weavers
- Nanci Griffith
- Sweet Honey in the Rock
- Raffi (U.S.)
- Joan Orleans (Germany)
- Manda Djinn (France)
- The Seekers (Australia)
Others believe the song is much older. Some scholars believe the song originated in the Gullah Geechee region. There are two versions of the song that relate to the Gullah Geechee region were collected in 1926, and both versions are archived in the American Folklife Center.
Around this same time, members of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a version from the South Carolina coast that was sung in Gullah.
Gullah is the creole language that was spoken by the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and in the Bahamas.
Archived in History
One of the archived versions was collected by folklore collector Julian Parks Boyd. Boyd had students collect traditional songs from the folks they knew in their rural community. He amassed a large collection of music during his single year of teaching in the community of Alliance, North Carolina. Boyd eventually became the head librarian and a history professor at Princeton University.
The version of “Kumbaya” was in Boyd’s manuscript collection of folk songs, and he shared it with a man named Robert Winslow Gordon. Gordon was the founder of the Archive of American Folk-Song, and the manuscript containing the first known recording of “Kumbaya” was among the first original materials to be deposited in the archive in 1928.
How Is the Word Kumbaya Used?
You might be familiar with the song “Kumbaya” because of its popularity at summer camps. In 1957, the Folksmiths sang it for campers while they roasted marshmallows. It’s a standard campfire song for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other campers.
It was most often played on guitars with or without a music book. For many young campers, the song would be remembered as part of a magic moment when the world was perfect. After the summer camp tours, the song became popular with liberal activists in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.
Republicans, including Mike Huckabee, and democrats, including President Obama, have often used the song title to mock political situations to criticize others and to drive home the complexity of a situation that can be solved through a prayerful tune.
It is often quoted in sarcasm, and the song is mocked by politicians who insinuate people will hold hands and sing as part of a foreign policy strategy.
Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Kumbaya?
Synonyms are different ways to say the same thing. They give us options, possibilities, and variety when we speak or write. Occasionally, you’ll find a word that does not have any suitable synonyms. Kumbaya is one of those words. You may find related words that can help you explain the word kumbaya, but there are not any synonyms for the word.
What Are Some Examples of How To Use the Word Kumbaya?
Example sentences show us a variety of ways to use a word. If you’re only familiar with the song “Kumbaya,” you might not be prepared to use it in a sentence. With these examples, you’ll be more prepared to use kumbaya in a sentence for yourself.
Here are examples of how to use the word kumbaya in a sentence:
- Did you even go camping if you don’t sing “Kumbaya” at least once around the campfire?
- I loved listening to my grandmother hum the tune of “Kumbaya” as she would prepare dinner on Sundays.
- Whether you consider “Kumbaya” a hymn or a folksong, we can all agree that it’s a catchy song to sing.
- All the volunteers gathered together on the last day to sing as one chorus “Kumbaya.”
The Last Word
With the many theories that surround the song “Kumbaya,” it would seem that it is up to each listener or singer to find their own meaning in the song. It’s only right that the song continues as part of the history and origin story of America.
What will “Kumbaya” mean to you the next time you see it in a songbook?